Gaetz, Jones argue in congressional debate over health care for veterans
This story has been updated to correct in the 14th paragraph that Jones was fired from the Health Department and did not resign, and more precisely describes the felony criminal case against her.
Rep. Matt Gaetz and challenger Rebekah Jones argued over the best health care for service members and veterans in the military-heavy, deeply conservative 1st Congressional District in Florida's Panhandle during the campaign's only debate.
Jones, a Democrat and political newcomer, promised construction of a new Veterans Affairs hospital in northwest Florida during her first term if she were elected – an extraordinarily tall order for a freshman lawmaker. Jones also falsely exaggerated her campaign's fundraising prowess.
"If I do nothing else in my first term, it will be to get that hospital built," she said.
Gaetz said he would consider abolishing the Department of Veterans Affairs to let service members and veterans seek government-funded health care from private doctors. He is a three-term Republican incumbent with a national profile as a pro-Trump firebrand and a nearly eight-fold fundraising advantage.
Gaetz wasn't completely honest about his campaign's refusal to accept money from lobbyists or political committees, and he mentioned former President Donald Trump only once in passing toward the end of the debate.
Gaetz promised to "work hard with America-First Republicans to retake the House of Representatives, to get our fiscal house in order, to stop this reckless spending and to get our economy back to that roaring Trump economy that had everyone in northwest Florida doing so well.”
The race is not considered competitive but features two of Florida's most colorful political candidates. The Panhandle district is so overwhelmingly Republican that most polling organizations haven't fielded polls. Voters there haven't elected a Democrat to Congress since at least 1995. Gaetz won in 2020 by 30 percentage points.
Florida's Panhandle is home to a number of military sites, including Naval Air Station Pensacola, Eglin Air Force Base, Tyndall Air Force Base, the Navy's Whiting Field and the Air Force's Hurlburt Field.
The 30-minute debate aired Thursday locally by WSRE in Pensacola but generated almost zero media coverage. Under its format, the candidates separately answered the same questions posed by moderators – but did not interact directly with each other – and made brief final remarks.
"No one thinks she has a real prospect to win this race, because things haven't exactly gone great for her," Gaetz said during the debate.
Gaetz, a lawyer and son of a prominent Florida politician, has been embroiled in a long-running sex-trafficking investigation that started in late 2020 and focused on his alleged involvement with a 17-year-old girl several years earlier. He has denied wrongdoing and said he has never paid for sex, and the Justice Department is expected not to formally charge Gaetz in the case.
Jones is the former Florida data scientist whose claims were rejected as unfounded by an inspector general's report after she accused the Health Department of intentionally falsifying pandemic data on behalf of Gov. Ron DeSantis.
A Florida appeals court on the eve of the primary election allowed Jones to run against Gaetz as a Democrat, after a trial judge had blocked her campaign because her opponent said she had not been a member of the Democratic Party for 365 days before qualifying for the race.
Jones also is facing a felony hacking charge in Tallahassee – the charge is accessing a computer system without or exceeding authorization – accusing her of causing a state government messaging service to send two texts in November 2020 criticizing the handling of the pandemic to 1,750 people even after she was fired from her job at the health department months earlier. Her criminal trial is set for Jan. 23, just weeks after new House members in Washington are sworn in.
In the debate, Jones alluded indirectly to the federal sex-trafficking investigation that ensnared Gaetz. She said he had "voted against almost every sex-trafficking bill that was ever brought to Congress." She said Gaetz in his last two terms had failed to pass any bills, although that was when Democrats controlled the House. Under Republicans, Gaetz during his first term sponsored at least four amendments that passed on minor issues.
In the Panhandle, which was ravaged by Category 5 Hurricane Michael in 2018, moderators also asked about climate change. Jones cited her experience – she is a published academic on extreme weather – and said the U.S. needs a plan that wouldn't sink the economy but considers the long-term costs of doing nothing.
"I know what the risks are," she said.
Gaetz said he was one of the few Republicans who have acknowledged climate change, but he criticized what he said were economic consequences of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement and similar plans by what he called "radical climate scientists." Trump withdrew the U.S. from the international plan, but President Joe Biden rejoined it last year.
"Climate change is real, and human activity contributes to climate change," Gaetz said.
The two disagree on abortion rights. Gaetz opposes abortions and said states should continue to be responsible for setting abortion laws, and said government funds should never be used to pay for abortions. He said he supports exceptions for cases of rape, incest or where a mother's life is at risk. Jones said she was not comfortable with the government making family planning decisions, at all.
“I don't like the idea of government making family-planning decisions for women," she said. She added: "It’s not politics. It is whether or not you see women as individual human beings."
Gaetz said in the debate that Jones was so far behind in fundraising because donors did not believe she could win. She has raised $830,301 through the end of last month and has $11,475 cash on hand, according to federal campaign finance records. Gaetz has raised $6.3 million and has $657,079 cash on hand.
Jones said her campaign raised more money than Gaetz did during his first race in 2016, but that wasn't true: Gaetz raised just over $1 million during his first campaign, according to federal campaign finance records.
"I'm not rich. I didn't grow up a millionaire with him," Jones said.
Gaetz boasted during the debate that he does not accept campaign contributions from lobbyists or political committees, but he did not mention that accepted such money until 2020, when he pledged to stop. Democratic candidates have made similar pledges as efforts to limit the influence of corporate money in politics.
Voters have already started returning mail ballots. In Escambia, Holmes, Okaloosa, Santa Rosa and Walton counties, more than 16,500 registered Republicans had returned ballots so far, with about 9,700 Democratic and about 4,900 unaffiliated and third-party voters sending in their ballots. Early, in-person voting in the area starts as early as Monday.
Each candidate said afterward they won the debate.
“I won the debate just like I’m going to win the election, bigly,” Gaetz said in an email.
Jones' campaign said she had "slayed" Gaetz.
“The contrast couldn't be more clear,” Jones wrote in an email. "Matt Gaetz acts like he's running against Joe Biden. I'm running against Matt Gaetz and for northwest Florida.”
This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . You can donate to support our students here .